Blessed to be a witness

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Wednesday, February 16

It all went pear-shaped

I have no idea how, but after re-crossing the harbour to TST, and having had a couple of drinks in another bar (including a mojito, which might have been our undoing), we ended up sleeping from 3am until 3pm the next day. Jetlag? Late night? Favourable sleeping conditions in the hotel? I don't know, but it was an utter waste of the daylight hours, so we determined to make the most of what was left of it.

We headed straight to the ferry and journeyed in the dark to Lamma Island, which is the little place I used to live. It's a dumbell-shaped island about two miles long, to the south of Hong Kong. There are two major villages - a small one to the south called Sok Kwu Wan (Picnic Bay) that is largely just a row of seafood restaurants - and Yung Shue Wan (Banyan Tree Bay) to the north, which is where I lived for the best part of two and a half years.

I don't know why, but in this trip here I am seeing Hong Kong with outsiders' eyes a little more than I used to. I'm not sure if it's become more Chinese since the handover, or whether I just perceive that it has due to distance and time, but the foreignness is much more evident than I recall. And no more so than in Lamma. You can't get much more urban than the urban districts of the city, but by contrast you can't get much more rural than Lamma. It's part of a nature reserve, so building regulations state that no building may be greater than a certain area, and nothing can be more than three storeys tall. To add to this, there are no cars, buses, taxis, nor truck - indeed no vehicles save for small trucks that are run on lawnmower engines. It's amazingly quiet, and within a couple of minutes' walk from the ferry pier, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation.

It was a bizarre feeling. On the one hand it was tremendously familiar, and on the other it seemed quite alien. I recognised a few faces, but the majority of the population there is quite transient, or part of the new influx of Chinese people who replaced the large numbers of westerners who left after the handover. Business seemed to be booming though, with new restaurants, shops and bars all over the place. The little shop that I used to use, run by a very amusing elderly lady called Mrs Fifferty, on account of the pronunciation of the basic English she had learned to do trade with the ex-pats, was still there, but she has retired and her son runs it now. Some of the restaurants have endured, including my favourite Chinese seafood place the Lamcombe, and the restaurant at which lives the ugly dog, who was still there, albeit very elderly.

We spent a few hours enjoying the atmosphere and tranquility, then back for an early night and early rise in order not to screw up the next day. We managed to be up by 7am.

So today we visited another of the outlying island destinations: Lantau, the largest of Hong Kong's islands, is host to the Big Buddha. The express ferry got us to Mui Wo (the village of Silvermine Bay) by 10am, where we had a coffee and caught the number 2 bus to Ngong Ping, home of the Po Lin monastery and the big chap 'Tian tian' himself. It's a long journey right up into the hills, and we were inside the clouds by the time we arrived. Because of the driving cloud, we only began to glimpse the Buddha from halfway up the 260 steps that lead to his plinth. And my he is big. 26 metres high, made of bronze, sitting cross-legged and facing China. Unlike during my previous visits, there was an exhibition hall open under his bum, with an 'actual' relic of the 'actual' Sakyamuni Buddha, left behind when he exploded into 83,000 pieces. According to the spiel, the relic is impervious to damage. M suggested we test this with a hammer, but we maintained a semblance of respectfulness as we filed past. It is the size of a grain of rice and "appears as different colours to different people", a theory that would have been good to put to the test if in fact we could see it, but the reliquary was behind glass, a long way from us.

Our HK$20 entrance fee also included a coffee and a 'snack' which turned out to be some delicious vegetarian noodles and some pastries. Excellent value. And it really does feel like one is in China. Almost defiantly so: there is no concession to tourism, everything is written in Chinese, and there seemed to be various Communist symbols around the place.

Back down the hills to Mui Wo for lunch, then back to the city to pick up our Chinese visas, and then for me to buy some new walking boots, as the ones I have threaten to throw me on my arse every time the ground is wet. And now we're waiting for Ding Ding to call so we can go out for dinner.

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To comment on this, or just to say hello, mail me at jim@crowaptok.com.